Moscow Focusing on Gotland and Other Baltic Sea Islands as Potential Targets

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 89


Executive Summary: 

  • Moscow says that Western actions in Gotland, Bornholm, and other islands in the Baltic Sea threaten Russian national security and that Russia will soon have no choice but to respond militarily.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin has regularly used the logic that Russia wants peace but that the West is forcing the Kremlin to respond to justify his actions in Georgia and Ukraine.
  • Consequently, Moscow’s statements are not merely propaganda but rather a clear indication of Kremlin plans, which can only be countered by securing Russia’s defeat in Ukraine and expanding Western defenses in Europe’s north.  

In recent weeks, the world has been focused mainly on Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has signaled that its next military moves are likely to come in Europe’s north. Moscow has indicated that it feels entitled to unilaterally change internationally recognized borders in the Baltic Sea (see EDM, May 23). Additionally, it has suggested that it is eying Norway’s Svalbard archipelago as Russia’s most likely next military target (see EDM, May 30). Now, the Kremlin is fixating on Bornholm, the Aaland archipelago, Gotland, and other smaller islands in the Baltic Sea that belong to Denmark, Finland, and Sweden as possible targets as well. This focus is intended to intimidate the West and indicates that Russian President Vladimir Putin is ready to take action in the Baltic Sea region. Were such a campaign to be successful, it would make Russia the paramount power in the north and undermine the Western alliance (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, May 22;; TASS, June 3;, June 7;, June 9;, June 11).  

Those observers tempted to dismiss Moscow’s words as simply a reflection of its continuing anger about Finland and Sweden joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Western alliance’s ongoing naval exercise in the Baltic Sea miss the point. Putin is now following the template he used to advance military moves against Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine since 2014—an indication of plans for aggression in the Baltic Sea region. Now as then, Moscow has sought to lull the West and maintain a position of official deniability by having commentators rather than officials putting forward the most radical comments. They use quotations from Western officials as well as sympathetic Western politicians and analysts to justify the Kremlin’s position. These commentators offer a version of the historical record that suggests that the West’s actions resemble what Hitler did a century ago and that plays up Western actions rather than the Russian ones that generated them. They claim this ensures that Russians will believe the West is always to blame and that Moscow has “no choice” but to respond (, May 24, repeating Bloomberg, May 23;, May 24;, May 30;, June 10).  

Russia has long been interested in the islands of the Baltic Sea. Two centuries ago, Alexander I, a tsar who is one of Putin’s heroes, said that Gotland, the largest of these islands, is “the key to the region and thus to the West”—words that some in Moscow are now echoing (, June 3). The Kremlin’s concern with the islands rose dramatically two months ago when the Russian Foreign Ministry denounced Swedish plans to establish a military base in Gotland as provocative. Ministry officials declared such a move would transform the Baltic Sea into “an arena of geopolitical confrontation.” The ministry pointed out that “the Russian side has frequently warned about the risks arising in connection with the military expansion of the alliance on the territories of the new member countries in the North of Europe,” and talk in Stockholm and other Western capitals about “defending the island from Russia” could lead to a military clash (RIA Novosti, April 5). (For background on the complicated history of Gotland’s demilitarization during the Cold War and Sweden’s positioning forces there even before joining NATO, see EDM, January 31, 2017.)

That declaration opened the floodgates for Russian commentaries on what Moscow views as the militarization not only of Gotland but also of other smaller Swedish islands, including Gotska Sanden, Finland’s Aaland Archipelago, and Denmark’s Bornholm and Christiansoe. By placing military units and equipment on these territories, Moscow commentators say, the Western alliance is positioning itself to blockade St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad and launch broader attacks on Russia. Some in Moscow insist this strategy represents a revival of Hitler’s plans for aggression against Russia coordinated by the United States (Russia News, May 30;, June 9). Such references to the Nazi past and to American perfidy are part and parcel of the Kremlin’s ongoing attacks on Ukraine and its insistence that the alleged fight against Ukrainian Nazis is part of its battle with the United States.

Not surprisingly, Russian anger about NATO and the Baltic islands rose to a fever pitch at the end of May when Stockholm hosted the third Ukraine-Nordic Summit. The Nordic countries pledged increased military assistance to Kyiv at the event and discussed expanding NATO defenses in the Baltic region. Russian commentators used the occasion to highlight how developments in the Baltic region and developments in Ukraine are linked (, June 11).  Russian anger increased still further on June 7 when NATO began the largest naval exercise in the Baltic Sea ever, an exercise scheduled to last until June 20 (, June 8). Such overheated Russian commentary provoked and has fed on remarks by Swedish and Finnish officials that openly suggested Putin “has his eye on Gotland” and that the Nordics must adopt a stronger forward defense strategy to counter moves against that island and the others. The Russian Foreign Intelligence Service has highlighted and denounced such comments (, May 22;, May 30;, June 10).

Most of the Danish, Swedish, and Finnish islands in the Baltic Sea are small, and many have few people living on them. As a result, Moscow clearly hopes that some in the West, especially in the wake of Russia’s display in Ukraine of its willingness to use force, will respond as they did earlier when such people asked who would be ready to “die for Narva,” an Estonian city on the border with the Russian Federation. Moscow failed to block NATO membership for the three Baltic countries. Its actions in Ukraine, moreover, have led Finland and Sweden to become members as well. Now, the Kremlin is adopting “salami tactics,” hoping it can push the West to make concessions about the defense of portions of these countries now that they are NATO members.

For those intimidated by Putin’s aggression and talk about using nuclear weapons, that may seem a reasonable compromise. Such concessions, however, in Svalbard and the islands of the Baltic Sea would give Putin a victory that would likely lead to the unraveling of the Western alliance over time. Consequently, what is playing out now about the islands belonging to Scandinavian countries is a far bigger deal than many currently believe.